Sex Object cover

Feministing Reads: Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object

I think about the ways in which men hurt women often.

Not just the stories of men killing women for refusing their advances or that one in six women can be expected to be raped in her lifetime, but the smaller things that still affect a life. The way a man thought it was okay to surreptitiously take pictures of my friend’s body in her bikini when we were on vacation. The way my friend’s boyfriend called the police on her at her own workplace after starting a fight. The way the police believed his version of the story, even when he didn’t stick around to finish telling it. I think about the aftermath. The way my friend can’t stand to hear noises that sound like sex due to her trauma history. The way I still sometimes cringe and my heart races when a man touches me in a certain way.

In Sex Object, Jessica Valenti’s new memoir (June 2016, Dey Street Books), she wonders about the cumulative effect of violence against women. “Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?” she muses in the introduction. The pages that follow don’t answer that question, but they do pose an implicit new one: what have we as women lost from the onslaught of violence—small and large—against us? Rather than coming up with a satisfactory answer to the unknowable question of what could have been, her book lets us know who she has become in a world that is just as it is. Valenti takes us through various points in her life, from her childhood and college years, to her marriage, her pregnancy, and her experience as a mother. She tells us about the high school teacher who asked her out on a date shortly after she graduated. She talks of men in her personal life and anonymous men. She writes about being a professional feminist, and how exhausting it is, even as she feels she should be grateful. “What I know is that despite my years of writing about feminism, I’ve never had the appropriate language to describe what it has meant to live with these things,” she writes. In Sex Object, she tries to find that language.

“Living in a place that has given up on the expectation of your safety means walking around in a permanently dissociative state,” Valenti writes. “You watch these things happen to you, you walk through them on the subway and on the street, you see them on the television, you hear them in music, and it’s just the air you breathe, so you narrate the horror to yourself because to engage with it would be self-destruction.” She goes on to describe the things that happen to her while coming of age in New York City: street harassment and sexualization, beginning from childhood; trying and failing to rise to the expectations of her father; the boyfriend who is furious with her because he feels like she shouldn’t talk to other men, even as friends, and cries to her about how he misses home and his family, but only stays on the phone for a few minutes with her after her father has a heart attack; the ways in which she learned to hate, then use her body, and the ways in which her body was used; the anonymous men who call her ‘cunt.’ For her, living in a state such as this has meant unyielding self-doubt, imposter syndrome, anxiety. It has meant believing the bad things people, anonymous and not, tell her about herself are true.

Valenti is known for writing Full Frontal Feminism, The Purity Myth, and for coediting Yes Means Yes! with Jaclyn Friedman. She is also, of course, known for being one of the creators of this site. Currently a columnist and staff writer for The Guardian, she has written about being the most harassed writer for their publication. She has carved out much of her professional life by fighting for feminism and against the ways in which women are violated, but what happens, in both past and present, to the woman who does that? The details may be different and more amplified due to her platform, but much of what she describes chronicles what it often can mean to live as a woman.

Jessica Valenti’s question—“Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?”— is personal, but it’s one that every woman could—and maybe should—ask herself. I decided to pose it to a couple of my friends. One laughed. “I can’t conceive of a world like that,” she said. A close friend’s sister said that she wouldn’t have been raped. That she would be confident and already established as a musician. Another friend said she would be less “pretty” and always hold her partner’s hand. She said she would be more outgoing. Later, she added, “I don’t know if I would have learned to love as hard and strongly as I do. I think a world that hates women made me have more empathy (for some).” And the last friend summed it all up: “I’m not even sure,” she said. “Because I feel like both ways in which I feel weak and beaten down and ways I feel good and subversive are all relative to that.”

One of the bright lights in the memoir come from stories about Valenti’s daughter, a girl who has inherited her mother’s anxiety but who is strong and smart. Her daughter is one of the girls Valenti names in the dedication, writing, “If the world is not a different one for you, I hope [you will] change it…” Despite the hopeful beginning, the book ends with nearly twelve pages of hate mail that Valenti received between 2008 and 2015. In a different way, these messages reiterate the salience of Valenti’s question and pose a different question to all of us—after the memoir has been written, what are we doing to change the fact that it needed to be?

Abigail Bereola has grown up all over the place. She aims to be a socially conscious creative.

Abigail Bereola has grown up all over the place. She aims to be a socially conscious creative.

Read more about Abigail

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